Martian Wind and Other Noise

This is a noisy time of year. Some of the sounds are delightful – like Christmas music on the radio and the chatter of children speculating about what Santa will bring. Some of the seasonal noise is less charming. There is no shortage of ads and jingles to remind us of the commercial pressures to achieve the perfect holiday. Roads and stores and parking lots this time of year are busier, and therefore louder. There seems to be more honking going on. As I think about holiday noise in that grinchy kind of way, I realize that I might be more sensitive than usual this holiday season because of a new addition in my home. Let’s just say our cute new puppy has discovered her outside voice. She enjoys barking along with seasonally excited children, and finds the sound of Christmas ornaments plummeting from the tree to the floor pretty interesting. She also enjoys chasing the cats, who screech with rage at the injustice. Maybe your home isn’t as chaotic as mine right now, but no matter how you measure, I think this is simply a noisy time of year.

In this holiday soundscape, a brand new noise was just discovered. NASA announced that it has heard the sound of wind on Mars for the first time. The InSight lander, which touched down on the red planet last week, is there to measure seismic activity, or marsquakes if you will. Instruments recorded the windy noise through the vibrations of air moving over the spacecraft’s solar panels, the sound of which happens to be in the range of human hearing. “Capturing this audio was an unplanned treat,” said a NASA official. You can listen to the recording and hear martian wind for yourself. The sound is familiar, just like what we hear on earth. And yet, at the same time, it’s also mind boggling. It’s the farthest sound our ears have ever been able to hear, in the wildest of places. Here on earth, we take the sound of wind for granted. But that sound becomes remarkable when all the other noises we hear are stripped away in an absolute wilderness.

It makes sense to me that people went out into the wilderness to hear the word of God that had come to John the Baptist. In that remote place, the noisy distractions of life were quieted so that people could hear more clearly. In that stillness, they could hear the distinct voice of one crying out to prepare the way of the Lord. They could experience John’s simple campaign of repentance, and find solace in his bold prophecy that all flesh will see the salvation of God. To glimpse that kind of truth we have to lose some of our distractions. And we should note that this endeavor of going out there to see John would have felt deeply familiar. In the history of Israel, the wilderness was where covenants were made and renewed. Knowing that history, people could trust that something big was starting. Without other distractions, the wilderness was the familiar realm of prophets, and it was the realm of hope.

But there is more sound in John’s story than simply a voice crying out in a deserted place. His backstory is full of unusual sounds, and also a wild silence. His parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were in their later years, still childless. They prayed to God about it. Townspeople talked about it. And when an angel came to visit about it, with the news that they would have a son, Zechariah doubted. Perhaps he had grown

comfortable with idle gossip and unanswered prayers. The angel condemned him to silence for doubting the unfolding of a divine plan. He was mute until the day John was named. Then, suddenly able to speak, Zechariah praised God with a song. We just heard his song in the place of the psalm. He sang both to God and to his infant son. “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” Apparently Zechariah’s time of deep silence helped him to see God’s work more clearly, and the first sound out of him was praise. What a glorious sound that must have been, familiar yet all the more remarkable for the silent wilderness he had been in.

Each year at this time we hear John telling us to prepare the way of the Lord. I think we also need to hear Zechariah’s voice, both its silence and its song. If we ponder the Zechariah in each of us, we can surely find times in which we doubt the unfolding of God’s plan. We can hear the prophet’s vision and scoff. We don’t tend to see or believe that every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and that all flesh shall see the salvation of God. It’s hard to find large scale evidence that this is taking place. And what’s more, most of the noise of this world is telling a very different story.

Which is exactly why we come back to that scruffy prophet in the wilderness. The word of the Lord came to him, not to the emperor or governors or even the priests. God seems to work not through the mighty but the ordinary, the local, and the unlikely. We don’t know where the word of God will come next, except that it comes just where it’s needed and often where we don’t expect. It can even come to us, just look at the history. The word of God came in the wilderness to a wild-eyed itinerant preacher. God’s word appeared in a baby born to a teenage mother of all people (David Lose). It’s a power that can work through you and through me, sometimes quietly underneath the world’s noise, all the while bringing us closer to the prophet’s vision.

This season is a noisy one for many of us, barking dogs and martian winds aside. And, it can certainly be a time of wilderness. This time of year might be sparkly on the surface, but just about everyone I know struggles with the contrast between the glitter and the more complicated realities underneath. John the Baptist comes just when we need him each year, to remind us to listen for the word of the Lord in the wilderness. We can usually hear more clearly out there. And Zechariah comes too, with his solid testimony in noise and in silence, in doubt and in faith, in sorrow and in joy, that forgiveness is to be proclaimed and salvation is on its way.

Friends, the Advent surprise really is the same as the Christmas one – God’s handiwork will be seen when and where you least expect it. God was at work in wild-eyed John in the wilderness and in his dad’s life, too. God next unlikely advent would be in John’s relative, a baby born in Bethlehem. And God’s not finished yet. Salvation is still on its way. God’s vision is still unfolding. If our sacred history is a predictor of our sacred future, we know that God will act in unlikely people and places. So consider this: whatever the noise level or wilderness you face this holiday season, know that you’re in the good company of ancient prophets. Surely God will work through you, too.

Kate Alexander